The Golden Gate National Recreation Area is a sprawling collection of natural attractions and historical points of interest that stretches from Stinson Beach, 20 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge, all the way to Rancho Corral de Tierra, 20 miles south of the bridge.
Attractions abound, and you could easily spend a week or two exploring this national treasure without running out of new things to see and do.
It’s helpful to think of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area as being comprised of six zones:
- Muir Woods
- The Marin Headlands
- Presidio of San Francisco
- San Francisco beaches
- San Mateo County hiking
Cross the Golden Gate Bridge and drive 5 miles north to Hwy. 1 which leads to Muir Woods National Monument, Muir Beach and Stinson Beach. The giant redwoods of Muir Woods may be the most well-known feature of the recreation area, and attendance at the monument is a testament to their popularity.
Parking at Muir Woods is very limited. So if you visit Muir Woods on a weekend, during the summer months, or on a holiday, plan to get to the park very early (before 9 a.m.) or or take the Muir Woods Shuttle to the park. To learn more about the Muir Woods Shuttle, click here.
Drive along Conzelman Road on your way to the Marin Headlands and you’ll be treated to stunning views of the Golden Gate Bridge and downtown San Fransisco along the way. The road ends at Point Bonita Lighthouse. From there, you can follow a short trail that ends at a gated tunnel about a quarter mile from the lighthouse.
On Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, the gate is unlocked from 12:30 to 3:30 p.m., and you can walk all the way to the lighthouse, which I highly recommend. To learn more about Point Bonita Lighthouse, click here.
There is enough to do at the Marin Headlands to keep you interested for at least a couple of days. In addition to Conzelman Road and Point Bonita Lighthouse, here are a few highlights from the area:
- Learn about the Nike Missile program that operated a site in the Marin Headlands during the Cold War by visiting the Nike Missile Site Museum.
- Visit Fort Barry, Fort Cronkhite, Fort Baker, and the many historic military batteries that can found throughout the headlands to learn about the military history of the region.
- Spend an hour or two at the Marine Mammal Center, where more than 20,000 marine mammals have been rescued and treated since 1975, and see rehabilitating marine mammals up close.
- A visit to the headlands would not be complete without a quick stop at the Marin Headlands Visitor Center. Here you can learn more about current activities and conditions, and pick up a program book for any Junior Rangers in your group.
There are free parking areas, provided by the recreation area, on both sides of Hwy. 101 on the north side of the Golden Gate Bridge. Park here and enjoy up-close views of the Golden Gate Bridge and long-range views of Alcatraz and San Francisco. You can even walk across the Golden Gate Bridge from here if you are so inclined.
The parking area on the east side of Hwy. 101, Vista Point, has restrooms and considerably more parking, but is only accessible from the north-bound lanes of travel. Visitors headed south on Hwy 101 can park on the west side of the highway, walk along the short path under the bridge, and access Vista Point and the walkway on the eastern side of the bridge.
To learn more about the Marin Headlands click here.
Presidio of San Francisco and Fort Mason
Head south across the Golden Gate Bridge and the first exit off of Hwy. 101 will take you to the Presidio of San Francisco. For many visitors, the Golden Gate Bridge Welcome Center will be the first stop.
This shop is not part of the National Park system, but is a good place to pick up a bridge-themed souvenir. If you’d like, you can park here and walk across the Golden Gate Bridge all the way to Vista Point if you’re so inclined — just remember you have to walk back!
Presidio of San Francisco offers countless hiking trails, overlooks, picnic areas, and even a tent-only campground. There is also a visitor center where you can get you talk to a park ranger and decide what to check out first.
To learn more about Presidio of San Francisco, click here.
From Presidio, you can venture down to Fort Point directly below the bridge. From here you can enjoy a stunning view under the Golden Gate Bridge over to the Marin Headlands. Crissy Field, a former military airfield, is adjacent to Fort Point and provides a beautiful area to walk, bike, jog, or just relax and enjoy views of the bridge, Alcatraz, and the San Francisco bay.
Finally, don’t forget Fort Mason which serves as the headquarters for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. In addition to several walking areas, take the time to explore the historic Fort Mason piers and warehouses which now contain the Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture. Time your trip just right and you’re sure to find an event, lecture, or performance held at the Center that fits your interests and budget. Click here to learn more about the Fort Mason Center.
Perhaps the most well-known prison in the United States, Alcatraz is now a national park you can visit almost any day of the year — provided you buy your tickets in advance!
While Alcatraz is part of the National Park Service, it is only accessible by booking a ticket with a private ferry service: Alcatraz Cruises. Tickets do often sell out, so be sure to purchase your tickets in advance. Learn more and purchase your tickets by clicking here.
San Francisco beaches
There are three beautiful beaches in San Francisco. Due to rough surf, strong currents, and very cold water, swimming is not recommended at any San Francisco beaches.
- Baker Beach is a great place to enjoy a walk along the beach or to have a picnic with beautiful views of the bay and bridge, but you should be aware that this particular beach is clothing-optional.
- At low tide, you can often find starfish, mussels, and other marine life in the rocky cliffs at China Beach.
- If miles of clean sand and excellent kite-flying conditions are of interest, Ocean Beach offers the broadest and longest stretch of beach in San Francisco. Highly experienced surfers also enjoy surfing at Ocean Beach.
To learn more about San Francisco beaches click here.
San Mateo County Hiking
Milagra Ridge, Mori Point, Sweeney Ridge, Rancho Corral de Tierra, and Phleger Estate are all great places to visit if you are looking for a peaceful hike in the hills of San Mateo County.
Of particular interest to ocean-lovers is Mori Point where you can hike on the hills above the Pacific Ocean and trek down to the water’s edge. Click here to learn more about hiking trails south of San Francisco.
The Golden Gate National Recreation Area is breathtaking in it’s scope and natural beauty. There is much to do here, more than I could possibly fit into a single article.
My advice is to plan to allow more time than you think you will need to visit the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. That way, you just might be able to fit in the countless forts, hikes, beaches, and sights waiting for you along the shores of the San Francisco Bay and Pacific Ocean.